Design and the Golden Rule

When I first got into software usability and design, I did it because I was tired of working as a technical writer, whose primary function was to describe how to work around software that didn’t work right. First as a usability engineer, now as an interaction designer, it’s become my job to prevent problems in the first place.

The more I do this kind of work, the more I realize it’s not just a business enterprise, it’s an ethical enterprise—not just to solve a business problem, but to “do no harm” along the way and ideally even to make using software a pleasurable experience.

When I worked at a software company in a previous job, I created a 99 second video collage of highlight clips from field studies and usability tests entitled “99 Seconds of User Pain” and showed it at an internal design event. It was a horrific barrage of puzzlement, expletives (tastefully edited of course), and even some tears and head-banging. The point was not to make fun of our users, but to show the depth of frustration we as a company were inflicting on them.

The video was a hit; the audience gasped and moaned and laughed at themselves—not at our poor users. People (even those working for large monolithic software companies) don’t generally want to hurt other people. They just don’t realize they are doing exactly that a lot of the time.

It’s our job as UX professionals to show developers the Golden Rule in action, and to keep them (and us) from breaking it. Not that users always know what they want—because they don’t. But they do know when they are in pain. It’s our ethical responsibility to relieve it, and even replace it with satisfaction or (heaven forbid) enjoyment.

posted by Ted Boren on Thursday, Aug 24, 2006
tagged with design, usability, ethics